The last-minute inclusion of Jeremy Corbyn as a contender to the leadership of the Labour Party was received with derision by mainstream media and party figures. The worry was that his reluctant participation in the leadership election would send the wrong message to voters. But yesterday’s party hustings in Nuneaton showed that these fears were misplaced.
If anything, Corbyn’s participation in the debate showed that clarity and conviction still count for something in British politics. Of the four contenders to Labour’s top job, Corbyn was the most applauded by the audience of undecided and clearly nonplussed Nuneaton voters. He also widened the scope of the party’s otherwise flat and superficial debate about the future of Labour Party politics by claiming that there are other ways of thinking about the deficit, welfare reform or immigration.
By contrast, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall – the three “real” contenders of Labour’s leadership election – struggled to find points of disagreement between themselves, and none of them explained with clarity their analysis of the causes of Labour’s catastrophic defeat.
Their opening statements were similarly bland and poor in terms of content. In fact, they seemed to have been written by the same copy-editor. Each placed emphasis on different policy issues and promised “more of this” and “less of that”, but they (surprisingly) deviated very little from Milibandism, or from each other. On immigration, the deficit and welfare they differed little from Ed Miliband’s script. They even repeated his convoluted messages.
A fresh start?
The format of the debate did not help. As each intervention was timed, there was never any real chance to discuss ideas and policy in some detail and so the three preferred to repeat their rehearsed slogans leaving the audience none the wiser about their promises of change. For instance, Liz Kendall kept promising a “fresh start” but she never explained what it amounted to, apart from some hardline stances on immigration, on welfare and on the deficit.
But even on welfare, she did not move that far away from Milibandism. Indeed, Miliband liked to say that Labour was the “party of work” and Kendall’s proposals to introduce the contributory principle in the welfare system were part of Labour’s 2015 manifesto.
She managed to sound different from Cooper and Burnham by vaguely supporting the idea of a budgetary surplus, but she would be wise to consider carefully the endorsement of a policy stance that most economists consider to be economically illiterate. She also scored some points by presenting herself as the candidate who will “put the country first” but her ill-disguised attempts to look like Labour’s Iron Lady may not win her many friends within the party.
Andy Burnham, who so far has been seen as the favourite to lead the Labour Party, scored few brownie points. He insisted on the need to move from the Westminster bubble, but at times he spoke like a paid-up member of the professional political class. It is true that Jeremy Corbyn’s participation in the leadership contest is not helping his cause. Corbyn’s passionate defence of public services and of a higher minimum wage stole some of Burnham’s radical colours. In comparison with the Islington North MP, Burnham almost sounded like a centrist. Worse, a centrist with a tendency for verbosity.
Cooper most confident
Yvette Cooper was not much better. She presented herself as a reassuring and experienced pair of hands who will take the party in a sensible (but not necessarily inspiring) direction, but offered no specifics about her distinctive ideas. This being said, her relaxed demeanour and her willingness to be more revealing about what she really thinks about issues (namely on welfare) helped her to come across as the most confident of the four contenders.
Despite Cooper’s attempts to inject some enthusiasm into the debate, the studio audience in Nuneaton did not seem too impressed with what they saw and heard. It all seemed so flat. But maybe the candidates will be forgiven for this. The party’s electoral defeat was not so long ago, and it still needs to be digested and fully understood.
The format of the televised debates is quite challenging, as the leadership contenders have to pitch both to the party and to a fragmented electorate. For these reasons, yesterday’s Nuneaton party hustings should be seen as a warm-up exercise to the real – and hopefully more passionate and content-rich – debate that will take place over the next three months.